METEORA

 

Your first, second and third sight of these impossibly tall, vertical rocks will have you gasping in disbelief. But it’s not just the incredible geology that stretches your imagination. It’s the monasteries balanced on these pinnacles. How did they get there? The monks who built them were the original rock climbers, lifting the materials up with pulleys, nets and their bare hands.

In Thessaly, a forest of mind-bending stone monoliths rises perpendicular to the flat valley north of Kalambaka, south of the Pindus Mountains. Monasticism here began in the 11th century with the first hermits arriving in Thessaly from Mount Athos to retreat to niches in these heavenly pillars. In the 14th century, the Blessed Athanasios of Meteora came to the area and founded the first monastic community in the monastery of the Great Meteoron. Other monks followed from other corners of Greece, creating a total of 20 monasteries.

At present there are six active, flourishing, restored monasteries and convents, which welcome each visitor hospitably to their lofty realms. These are Agios Nikolaos Anapafsa, Metamorphosis tou Sotiros or Megalou Meteorou, Varlaam, Roussanos, Agia Triada and Agios Stephanos. All the others, whether restored or abandoned, are empty.

From the earliest days of the monasteries, rockclimbing was a necessity, not a sport. There was no other way to get to the top except by using ropes, nets, bare hands or long rickety ladders. Nowadays, the challenges of these divine columns attract climbers from all over. They enjoy the classic rock-climbing routes, often without excessive safety precautions. All the routes have been cut in the traditional way from down up. To the eyes of the initiated they look impossible, some going virtually straight up to a height of 500m.

By far the prettiest village in the area, Kastraki fits snugly at the base of the giant rocks and welcomes climbers, who can take their pick of cozy hotels, rooms in private houses and camping sites, tavernas and shops. Palio (Old) Kastraki has been declared a protected traditional settlement.

Kalambaka opens the door to Meteora. The commercial and tourist hub of the region, it has lots of hotels, rooms to let and good restaurants – all the makings of a dreamy holiday. Take a stroll in the old part of town, called Spotos, which has been given a tasteful facelift. Don’t miss Greece’s only woodworking school here and a traditional foundry, where you’ll find rare hand-crafted bronzeware